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What’s a Super-Ager?

The Bay Area also has one of the oldest and fastest-aging populations in the region, with the baby-boomer generation being largely responsible for this. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans can expect to live longer with fewer dying from major diseases. In addition, a lot of older Americans are enjoying their extended life spans with fewer ailments that often come with aging.

What is contributing to this healthy aging? A recent Harvard study shows some key factors — easy access to Medicare and better medical treatment, especially in cardiovascular and vision care—are important. However, there’s an even healthier group of seniors out there who have the same mental and physical capabilities of individuals that are decades younger than them — and they are called super-agers.

Super-agers are people in their 70s and 80s who are both cognitively and physically a match for people much younger, but they didn’t get there the easy way. According to Harvard Medical School research, super-agers embrace new challenges, both mentally and physically — essentially making sure to move out of their comfort zones. The research showed that super-agers had thicker regions of the brain that would normally show cell loss — regions that are involved in memory, attention, emotion, and language, to name a few. These super-agers did not have higher IQs or education levels than other seniors tested, they simply embraced challenges outside of their comfort zones and were committed to achieving them. Physically, super-agers had an aerobic capacity of people decades younger. To achieve this, they have to exercise at high intensity for 20 to 45 minutes a day, which gives them the aerobic capacity of people 30 years younger. What’s more, research shows that as aerobic capacity increases, the risks of cardiovascular disease, dementia, and death decrease.

So what does it take to be a super-ager? The good news is, you don’t have to have been practicing these mentally and physically healthy habits your whole life. Some super-agers make lifestyle changes well into their 50s, 60s, and 70s. While it’s not easy, and individuals who haven’t been very physically active should discuss with their physician the best plan to incorporate exercise into their lives, there are some steps you can take to increase your super-ager status:

  • Increase your physical activity. As mentioned, if you’re not physically active at all, discuss a safe plan with your physician. If you are physically active, start to increase your exercise levels until you’re exercising at 60% your maximum heart rate, and then 70% your maximum heart rate, for 20 to 40 minutes, three to five days a week.
  • Take on new mental challenges. These are new and engaging activities that challenge you mentally that you wouldn’t have done before and may even be a little intimidating to you. So if you’re a regular book reader or do crossword puzzles, you need to go beyond that. Learning a new language, master a musical instrument, or even volunteer. All of these are great options.
  • Don’t give up. You may not be used to taking on new challenges, and it may take time to develop the patience to not throw in the towel. The key here is to persevere until you’ve grown proficient in whatever it is that you’re challenging yourself with mentally or physically. With time, it will get easier, and you can move on to other challenges and goals.

The bottom line is, it’s never too late to become the healthiest you — and maybe even enjoy a healthier life than people decades younger than you.

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